Arts feature

The untold story of Judy Garland

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

Judy Garland is now a myth, a paradigm and a warning: don’t let your daughter on the stage! It’s the cognitive dissonance that is thrilling and awful, like a child that dies: Dorothy kicked off her ruby slippers and turned to Benzedrine. It is a narrative that erases Garland as surely as the drugs ever did. When I think of Garland, I don’t think of the chaos, born at MGM Studios where they drugged her to make her slender and biddable. They called her the ‘little hunchback’ and because she was schooled with Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner she believed it. I marvel at the music.

She was extraordinary, not because of her illness, but despite it. She was less than five feet tall and when she sang she looked first anxious, then amazed, as if she could not believe the sound was hers. The musical, which developed in response to the Great Depression, is an artform in which an ordinary person sings, and becomes transcendent. That is why she was the best woman in musicals. She was, by herself, a musical.

A new film, Judy, retells the myth. Garland (Renée Zellweger) is in London in the winter of 1968–9 to play the Talk of the Town. She is broke. She is ill. She is four times divorced and separated from her children. In public, she is communal property — heckled or swamped. She will die of an accidental overdose at 47 in a mews house in Belgravia the following June. All this is sweetly enough played by Zellweger, whose Garland is absolutely a victim. It’s an old story, and one for which the hunger is insatiable: a gifted woman pays for her talent with her life.

But there is a problem with Judy. The film-makers decided, inexplicably, not to use Garland’s voice. Zellweger sings instead. In Judy, we are enjoined to be spellbound by a woman whose voice is barely adequate and whose expertise is not even in musical theatre. What is left of Judy Garland when you remove her voice? And so Judy is yet more exploitation, a platform for a woman’s lesser gifts.

There is a fascinating story to be told about Garland’s run at the Talk of the Town, and this is not it. Rather, I suggest this tale: at this time Judy was tended to by an Essex-born civil servant called Lorna Smith, the founder of the International Judy Garland Club. That Garland turned to Smith in her last months tells us so much about her I am amazed the film-makers ignored it.

I learned of Smith’s existence from Gary Horrocks, the Garland historian and editor of the International Judy Garland Club journal. You can glimpse Smith at the edges of photographs holding Garland’s make-up case and extinguishing her cigarettes; in the car on the way to the club; at Garland’s fifth wedding in March 1969. I spoke to Smith — she is now 93. There is something incredibly doughty about her. It is as if she is the anti-Garland, and that is what attracted them to each other — the sympathy of the different. She wrote a book about it: Judy, with Love. It is precise, respectful and formal. She doesn’t write about the terrible symptoms of Garland’s lifelong addiction. She uses, always, the gentle euphemisms of ‘nervous breakdown’ and ‘tensions’. She is patient and protective of Garland’s privacy; most people weren’t. She was barely eating, and her stage clothes were held together by safety pins. She was frightened to be alone.

Smith tells me that when Garland arrived in London she telephoned her, ‘to ask if there was anything I could do to help’. Garland replied: ‘Oh yes, Lorna, can you possibly help me to unpack tomorrow?’ Smith arrived at the hotel and was ‘absolutely shocked by how unwell she had become, bless her heart’. Garland asked her to help her prepare for opening night: ‘I haven’t got a lady with me and they’re not providing anybody at the theatre.’ Smith said: ‘I’ll certainly come but I’m not much good at that sort of thing.’ She worked for the Inland Revenue. ‘I’ll probably get you into everything upside down.’ Judy replied: ‘Oh well, we’ll make a team.’

Every night Smith went to the hotel after work: ‘I just helped her get in and out of things and find the clothes she wanted to wear. I accompanied her in the car. I stood in the wings while she was on stage and went upstairs to the dressing-room afterwards. I thought I’d rather go there and help her and worry about her than worry without knowing why I was worrying.’

Sometimes, her emphasis on Garland’s wellbeing, not her art, troubled Garland. Smith says: ‘She said to me one night, “You never say anything about the performance, Lorna.” I said, “Well, I don’t really see or hear very well [from the wings].”’

Garland said: ‘Well, I wish you’d say something, this silence is so demoralising.’

‘You should know me well enough by now, luv, to know I’m no good at fancy speeches,’ Smith told her. ‘Anyway, what would you rather have? Someone who makes fancy speeches, or someone who hangs up your wet pants?’ Garland took the pants and dropped them on the floor. ‘Someone who makes fancy speeches,’ she said.

They became friends when Garland was in England for six months in 1960. Garland had loved England since her appearance at the London Palladium in 1951 salvaged her career after she was fired by MGM. Garland said of London: ‘I came here full of fear. I left full of hope.’

‘I just loved Judy,’ Smith says. ‘I went to her opening night the very first time she came here. I’d never been in an audience before with that atmosphere — a sort of palpitation before she even walked out. “Welcome to London, Judy!” “Good old Judy!” “We love you, Judy!” One great, deep-throated roar — that was Judy’s reception.’

The Talk of the Town run was called, retrospectively, a failure because that is the narrative: a woman falling down. But it was a dud gig for any singer. The audience were eating and smoking — bad for Garland’s morale and her voice. She was, in fact, asked to stay on for another week but she was too unwell. She was always late for her spot because, Smith says, ‘the management asked if Judy could make up and dress in the hotel room. And that, in my view, was a disastrous thing to do. Judy didn’t realise this but in her weakness she was getting slower and slower. But if you tried to hurry her she would panic. She hadn’t got a watch. It’s unbelievable that there wasn’t even a clock in the suite in the Ritz. She was getting slower and slower and slower. She was never knowingly or intentionally late.’

Smith was there the night Garland was heckled, and pelted with bread rolls: ‘This lunatic went up on stage and started shouting at her and grabbed hold of her arm. It was disgusting.’ The management did nothing. Rather, ‘She was defended by that lady who was tortured by the Gestapo during the war. She went up and told them what she thought of them. Good for her. I wish they could be tortured by the Gestapo, as far as I am concerned.’ That was Odette Hallowes, an agent in France, the most highly decorated woman in the second world war and the first woman to win the George Cross.

Smith last saw Garland six days before she died. She visited her at the mews house, and brought her pearls as a birthday gift: ‘She loved pearls and I realised she hadn’t got anything like that with her when she came back here. I rang the doorbell and she came down in her dressing-gown. I went up with her and we sat chummily on the side of the bed and we chatted on that afternoon.’

I wonder if, in the end, Garland’s fans understood her better than anyone, because they alone could really hear her.

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